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The Incidental Advantage

Daniel C. Dennett’s recent book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” (2006), is a fascinating volume, but it is not my purpose here either to review it or even to try to summarize its highly original approach to what one might call the biology of religions — how they grow, develop, adapt and either benefit or disadvantage their believers. But there is one curious notion he proposes that I find helpful in discussing this week’s portion: the suggestion that there are practical consequences to religious inclinations. The early Christians, he suggests, were successful because they had an idea of selflessness that was the equivalent of a welfare state. That they cooperated with one another helped them to survive and prosper. Survival and prosperity were surely not the primary purposes of their ethical system, but one can see how such a pattern of behavior conferred what Darwin would have identified as a mutational advantage.

So, too, in the second of this week’s combined portions, with its striking beginning that combines the mitzvahs of revering one’s parents and keeping the Sabbath. They are not merely juxtaposed but combined into a single sentence. “One must revere his mother and father and observe my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:3)

According to Dennett, the root of all religion is the notion of agency — the attribution of motives either to our friends and enemies or, beyond that, to the creator. We are the only creatures who ask, “What could that mean?” and who see — mistakenly or correctly — intention in what may be random events. Sometimes A and B may be connected and sometimes not, but the temptation, when there is a hurricane or a tornado, is to attribute anger to God because it certainly looks as though someone or something is displeased. That is why Zeus and Jupiter were always represented as clutching a handful of thunderbolts.

The question then is whether these two mitzvahs are in some way related. They are joined into the one sentence that ends with “I am the Lord your God,” which is at the very least a way of calling attention to whatever has gone before. Rashi’s odd idea was that the commandment about the Sabbath superseded the commandment about honoring and revering parents, and he read it, apparently, as if it meant that even though your parents may not be observant, you should nonetheless observe the law yourself and keep the Sabbath.

Who am I to disagree with Rashi? But put it more plausibly and say that I am not smart enough or wise enough to follow him. To me, the two commandments are related with the same intimacy that we remember from childhood, when we sat around the dining room table with the candles burning on the sideboard and — with our parents — partook of the Sabbath meal. The two instructions complement each other and are part of each other: It is with and from our parents that we learned to welcome the Sabbath bride.

And the incidental advantage? I have come to see this as perhaps irrelevant but not unimportant. The young men and women of Leverett House at Harvard University, where I eat lunch a couple of times a week, are the cream of the cream of American education, and yet I watch them sitting at the tables of the handsome Georgian dining room, earphones in their ears, computers on the tables, a Wi-Fi connection allowing them access to the riches of the Internet, and they shovel fuel into their bodies — not just because they are working under pressure but because they have learned that this is how to eat. Two-income families with microwaves don’t dine together anymore. There is ballet and soccer and the French horn lessons, and God knows what else. Yes, God knows, which may be why he commanded us to keep the Sabbath and honor our parents. The family meal, even once a week, is civilizing, enlarging, enlightening. It is not merely an extravagance that too often has been abandoned in the concentrated effort of upwardly mobile, hard-working people to succeed, improve, do well and maybe even get their kids into Harvard!

My role there is that of a Senior Common Room associate, and I show up as a kind of ornament, a grownup and an intellectual with whom these youngsters are invited to eat. It isn’t just the grade-point average or the technical competence that Harvard is trying to impart, but a degree of social poise and an understanding of how it is possible to combine intellectual pursuits with real life — or, at the simplest level, how to eat and converse at the same time. Harvard does what it can, but the students, bright as they are, don’t know how to respond. And if this is true at Harvard, then we can extrapolate downward through the second and third rank of American colleges and universities.

If “I am the Lord, your God” isn’t enough, there is also the likelihood that honoring your parents and keeping the Sabbath will civilize you and do you good.

David R. Slavitt’s books published this year are “Re Verse” (Northwestern University Press), “William Henry Harrison and Other Poems” (Louisiana State University Press) and “Blue State Blues,” a campaign journal (Wesleyan University Press).

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